Variety the spice of life when it comes to honey

I had honey on my toast this morning. It wasn’t just any honey. Mine was made by my own bees that live in my backyard. This was my early honey, taken back in June of last year. It is lighter in color, thinner in viscosity and has a slightly different taste than the fall honey. My son, who lives a couple of miles away, shared a bottle of his early honey also. It is a little thicker and darker, and has a different taste.

Mine, of course, is clearly superior.

This variability of honey is both its charm and its limitation. Sugar derived from either beets or cane is refined into the sameness of sucrose, a fusion of one fructose molecule and one glucose molecule. But honey may have a bewildering array of sugars in various concentrations, along with miscellaneous other ingredients, depending on the environment in which the bees forage and the habits of the bees themselves.

When sugar became available, its uniformity allowed it to become more popular than honey as a cooking sweetener. But honey has a unique taste wherever it is harvested. It creates a wonderful and varied array of smells, colors and tastes. There are consumers who collect honey the way some people collect wines, storing and saving the best ones for special occasions.

While honey contains sucrose, it is usually only present at about 1 percent of the product. Fructose and glucose are also present, but in varying concentrations. Maltose and melizitose may be present in small and variable amounts. By the way, you might notice that all those things end in “-ose.” That is the chemical ending for things that are sugary.

There are traces of up to 200 different substances in honey: vitamins, minerals, pollen, proteins, acids, enzymes and a volatile aroma, made up of alcohols and esters that smell like summer. The specific composition of any batch of honey depends on the flowers available to the bees, but it also depends on the strain of bee doing the collecting. These multiple ingredients give honey its unique but variable taste.

What does the type of bee have to do with it, you ask? To make honey, bees visit floral sources and collect nectar in their stomachs. First they carry the nectar to their hives in their stomachs. In the stomach the nectar is immediately changed, at least to some degree, by the enzymes of the bees’ stomachs. Back at the hive the bees regurgitate the honey and hand it off to other bees working in the hive. These worker bees carry the honey, in their stomachs, to be deposited into a container within the hive. Sometimes the honey is re-ingested and regurgitated numerous times.

The primary enzyme in the bees’ stomach is called invertase, but there are at least two other enzymes also present. The amount of these enzymes present in honey varies with the age, diet and physiological condition of the bee collecting it. Other variables include temperature at the time of collection, strength of the colony, physiological condition of the second and third bees, the abundance of nectar flow and the type of nectar being collected.

Though hard to imagine, the forager bees may visit up to a thousand flowers on one foraging trip. If a certain type of flower is abundant they will feed on the same flower types. That is how we get specific tastes like orange honey or sweet clover honey. Where there is a mix of flowers, though, they will visit many different kinds of flowers in the foraging trip. This type of honey is traditionally called wild flower honey.

Is it any wonder that honey is, indeed, a local product? After my taste test this morning of both honeys, I can only conclude that my son lives in an inferior place or has inferior bees.

It’s a shame really.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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